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Annual Water Balloon Fight Splashes Into Public Eye

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Water balloons are usually the stuff of childhood pranks, backyard skirmishes and summertime silliness.

Not here.

In this mountain town, water balloons have become the stuff of laws, biting accusations and soon a public vote.

By most accounts, it didn’t start out this ugly.

A decade or so ago, local kids launched what would become an annual all-out July Fourth water fight. They were just looking for a way to cool down, longtime residents say.

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By the mid-1990s, hundreds of locals and visitors were cruising the town’s picturesque courthouse square, chucking water balloons, unloading water cannons and sometimes just swinging buckets from the back of pickup trucks.

But then things started to change. Some locals complained it was spinning out of control. Reports of bleach-spiked, frozen and rock-loaded water balloons swirled.

The City Council stepped in.

First, the council offered a compromise: Create a dry zone, use water but no balloons, police yourselves.

Prescott police say the rules seemed to cool things down last year, but new council members and a new mayor took office. They outlawed the water fights altogether in January.

“It’s abysmal that they permitted them in the first place,” said Mayor Sam Steiger, a former U.S. congressman. On his local daily television show, he called the participants “a mob of hoodlums.”

That might have ended the soak fest, except for a local college student armed with a referendum petition.

Jeremy Hassen, a 21-year-old student at Yavapai College, collected enough signatures to get the issue on the ballot. Prescott will spend an estimated $15,000 so citizens can decide Sept. 12 whether the water can continue to fly.

Limited water fights will be allowed to continue this July while the election is pending.

Some locals have criticized Hassen’s referendum as a waste of time and money, but he said it’s about tradition.

“I’ve been doing it for as long as I can remember,” said Hassen, a lifelong Prescott resident. “You can’t just get rid of a tradition.”

He and his supporters say that the water fights are fun and that participants only soak each other. When innocents get nailed, it’s usually an accident or the fault of a couple of rogues, Hassen said.

“There’s always a couple of people who don’t follow the rules,” he said.

Besides, he pointed out, the town has never exactly been quiet around July Fourth.

Every year, tens of thousands of people descend on Prescott to watch fireworks displays, attend the annual rodeo or sip a few drinks in the bars along Whiskey Row--the town’s original saloon street.

Today’s crowds, however, are a fraction of the size they were before 1979.

Back then, Prescott held street dances in the courthouse square, blocked the street in front of Whiskey Row and allowed bar patrons to wander around carrying open alcoholic beverages.

“From the bars all the way through the square, it would be wall-to-wall people, this huge group that would float out of the bars,” said Assistant Police Chief Dave Benner.

Drunken brawls and other disorderly conduct calls were common, he said.

The town has mellowed since the drinkers were forced back into the bars and the street dances ended. But Benner still estimates that during the July Fourth period, 20,000 to 30,000 people try to jam into the courthouse square, which covers a two-block area.

To add water to that crazy mix is just asking for trouble, said downtown jewelry store owner Jim Lamerson.

“You get water running down the streets, so slippery that people can fall,” he said.

And, he said, it establishes a bad precedent.

“If someone assaults you with a squirt gun, water gun or regular gun, it’s assault,” Lamerson said. “How can you legalize criminal behavior on public property?”

Others say they’re surprised the water fights came to be such a big deal.

“It’s kind of gotten ridiculous,” said Linda Watson, the owner of Bashford Courts, a small boutique mall in downtown. “It’s a very vocal few that raised the brouhaha.”

John Steward, a downtown shoe store owner and recently appointed city councilman, said he doesn’t know who’s complaining.

He said he used to drive through the square with his kids as they participated in the water battles.

“It was fun. It was no big deal,” he said. “We all like it. It’s just that we don’t think anybody should get hurt.”


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